The playing field, alas, isn’t level when it comes to recovering from and gearing up after a disappointment such as a failed relationship, divorce or some other important setback in your life. It won’t surprise you that securely attached people—those raised by a loving and attuned mother—fare better when life goes south. They manage their negative emotions better, don’t engage in self-criticism, ruminate less, and are generally more emotionally resilient than those who grew up without the validation and support of a loving mother. For the unloved daughter, any painful or upsetting experience may awaken the slumbering ghosts of childhood experiences, acting as triggers that blur the line between what happened then and what’s happening now.
Janine wrote me that: “When my last, long-term relationship ended—we were together five years—I sunk like a stone. There I was again, alone and unloved, just as I was a girl. It was all I could do to get out bed and go to work and it got so bad that my colleagues and boss actually staged a kind of intervention—that’s how worried they were about me. I’m a bit better now but I feel as though I have crawled back from the brink and it’s clear that the holes in me are very much there and need to be fixed somehow.”
Here are five strategies based in science to help you cope with painful experiences, both past and present. Understanding why you feel as you do, being able to identify your emotions with clarity, and seeing how those emotions tie into your life story constitute the pathway out.
1. Use cool processing when you recall the experience
Thinking about the experience in vivid detail and focusing on what happened will only throw you back into the moment, and make you relive the pain along with the blow-by-blow of the incident. Upsetting experiences are actually stored in a different part of the brain than happy ones—it’s an evolutionary legacy meant to increase our chances of survival—and they pop into our awareness without our active participation. So you’ll have to work at combatting the hardwiring when you think and force yourself to focus on why you felt as you did, not what was said or done at the time.
2. Enhance your emotional intelligence
Being able to distinguish one emotion from another with clarity and precision is an important part of mastering the kind of understanding that aids recovery from a setback. (I’m drawing from the original research on emotional intelligence by John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey, not the blockbuster book by Daniel Goleman.) It’s often hard for insecurely attached daughters, especially those who are anxious, to untangle what they’re feeling. Are you angry, disappointed, or frightened when your lover pulls away, for example? When someone ignores or dismisses you, are you frustrated, anxious, or panicked? Again, use cool processing to think about your emotions.
One study showed that labeling your emotions by writing them down lessened reactivity in one part of the brain so grab a pen and focus.
3. Confront your ruminative thinking
Are you on that horrible merry-go-round of thoughts that wakes you up at 2 a.m. and make you relive not just the painful experience but second-guess everything you did or didn’t do? Recognize this as an unconscious cycle and work to bring other thoughts into consciousness. Use self-calming techniques such as visualizing a person who makes you feel happy or secure, or a place where you feel utterly relaxed to defang the angst. Some people report success by assigning themselves a “worry time”—fifteen minutes or so in which you invite all the worst case scenarios into consciousness and battle them one by one. Again, rumination is yet another example of “hot” process or reliving the moment so do your best to cool your thoughts down.
4. Activate your psychological immune system
Luckily, according to Dr. Daniel Gilbert, we’re not entirely defenseless when something painful happens; we have internalized coping mechanisms, which he calls “the psychological immune system.” This way of thinking has to be used with care—you don’t want to rationalize the experience in such a way that you bear no responsibility—but it can help to tamp down the pain, especially if you’re using cool processing. So, instead of remembering how sweet and loving your ex could be at times, focus on how he always withdrew at your every request to talk things through, no matter how reasonable. Instead of focusing on how alone and abandoned you feel, recall your acute sense of loneliness when you realized he wasn’t listening or understanding you at all. Again, becoming consciously aware of why you are feeling what you’re feeling is key.
5. Set a goal for yourself
Just the act of setting a goal will help move you forward. Research shows that motivation can be increased by asking yourself a question, rather than focusing on an affirmation—despite the popularity of affirmations. So, say, that your goal is being more open to new experiences or being more outgoing, ask yourself “Will I be more open?” and then formulate the responses by coming up with answers to how you’ll be more open. (“I’ll be more open by not being so quick to turn down invites” or “I’ll be more open by calming down before a party.”) Research also shows that thinking about your goals in the abstract, rather than specifics, will also motivate you more and help you find more ways to be happy. If you’ve recently gotten divorced or broken up with someone, rather than think “I need to find someone to love me,” set a goal of finding companionship and understanding which opens up so many more opportunities for connection than just romance.
Painful experiences are hard but they can be managed and dealt with as long you cultivate conscious awareness
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Photograph by Brooke Cagle. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Kross, Ethan, Ozlem Ayduk, and Water Mischel, “When Asking ‘Why’ Doesn’t Hurt: Distinguishing Rumination from Reflective Processing of Negative Emotions, “Psychological Science (2005), vol. 16, no.9, 709-715.
Mayer, John D. and Peter Salovey, “What is Emotional Intelligence,” in Emotional Development and Emotional Intelliigence, edited by Peter Salovery and D.J. Slype (New York: Basic Books, 1997.)
Gilbert, Daniel. Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.